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A Skeptic's Guide to Computer Models by John D. Sterman

This article was written by Dr. John D. Sterman, Director of the MIT System Dynamics Group and Professor of Management Science at the Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 50 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA; email: Copyright © John D. Sterman, 1988, 1991. All rights reserved. This paper is reprinted from Sterman, J. D. (1991). A Skeptic's Guide to Computer Models. In Barney, G. O. et al. (eds.), Managing a Nation: The Microcomputer Software Catalog. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 209-229. An earlier version of this paper also appeared in Foresight and National

Decisions: The
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But Mousie, thou art no they lane In proving foresight may be vain; The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men Gang aft a-gley, An lea'e us nought but grief an' pain, For promis'd joy! Robert Burns, "To a Mouse" fast becoming a prerequisite for the policymaker, legislator, lobbyist, and citizen alike. During our lives, each of us will be faced with the result of models and will have to make judgments about their relevance and validity. Most people, unfortunately, cannot make these decisions in an intelligent and informed manner, since for them computer models are black boxes: devices that operate in completely mysterious ways. Because computer models are so poorly understood by most people, it is easy for them to be misused, accidentally or intentionally. Thus there have been many cases in which computer models have been used to justify decisions already made and actions already taken, to provide a scapegoat when a forecast turned out wrong, or to lend specious authority to an argument. If these misuses are to stop and if modeling is to become a rational tool of the general public, rather than

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